The current controversy engulfing Winston Peters was billed as "The mother of all scandals" and involves a long-running superannuation overpayment, which he may or may not be responsible for.

The worst-case scenario for Peters is that, as with Metiria Turei, he could end up being judged as the villain. But, equally, he could well be proved entirely innocent, and the victim of dirty tricks.

How the controversy began

Speculation that online news outlet Newsroom was about to drop a major new revelation about a politician started on Saturday when its co-editor, (and former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald), Tim Murphy (@tmurphyNZ) tweeted: "Turns out those who said this mad election had one more explosive convulsion to come weren't wrong. Could be soon. #motherofallscandals".

This led to a twitter frenzy of speculation about which politician was involved, and this was fuelled by Murphy's subsequent teasers that there "Could be real collateral damage" and "This could be the Royal Flush of scandals...."


Speculation mostly revolved around identifying which party leader or politician was likely to be in the hot seat. Many pointed to Paula Bennett, with Winston Peters also seen as a strong possibility.

The story about Winston Peters was eventually broken yesterday by TV3's Newshub, rather than Newsroom - see: Winston Peters admits taking extra pension payments. This contained details of Peters admitting he had been told by the Ministry of Social Development that he had been receiving an over-payment as part of his superannuation, but he had quickly repaid this. Parallels were drawn with Metiria Turei's infamous benefit fraud confession.

Winston Peters' defence

Winston Peters gave an interview with Morning Report today, in which he provided his most detailed explanation for what happened - see the RNZ news report on this: Peters: No-one knows how pension error happened. In this, Peters denied having to pay back as much as had been reported, and also denied claiming a single-person superannuation payment, saying "it's unclear how the error in his superannuation payment happened".

In a Newstalk ZB interview, Peters also explained that some sort of alteration was made to his application form, but that "no one knows how it was made" - see Isaac Davison's Peters fires back on superannuation: Repayment 'private'. In the same interview, he explains why he won't disclose the amount of money he had to pay back: "That is between me and the MSD. It is a private matter, just like the whole leak [to media] came out of IRD, which is a crime. That's the reality of it all."

Stronger criticisms of Peters

The strongest version of the scandal has been put forward by Newsroom's Melanie Reid and Tim Murphy - see: Co-habiting Peters billed $18,000. The Newsroom authors say that "New Zealand First leader Winston Peters took higher superannuation payments than he was entitled to for seven years - while living with his de facto partner - and has been required to pay back $18,000 to the state. Peters filled out forms when he turned 65 that qualified him for the single person's superannuation rate, which is about $60 a week higher in this case than a person would receive if declared to be living with a partner, which he was."

The article suggested that Peters should have been aware of the overpayment: "It is not clear why that higher figure was not noticed - by Peters - over all seven years, given his deep knowledge of and commitment to superannuation."

Furthermore, the Newsroom authors suggest that Peters should be subject to the utmost scrutiny: "Why he didn't put the error right until last month will be the subject of intense political examination four weeks out from the general election and in a campaign period that has already claimed three party leaders: Andrew Little, Metiria Turei, and Peter Dunne."

Tim Murphy then dealt further with some of these issues in a follow-up article, Peters: overpaid and under pressure. Of particular interest is the argument that the overpayment error might well have been considered by MSD as Peters' fault: "his admission to paying interest and penalties struck some in the know in the public service as a clear indication that any mistake made in Peters' application for superannuation in 2010 was made by him rather than the ministry."


Murphy also says that Newshub "stands by the bill of $18,000" that they originally reported. He explains how Peters' rejection of that figure might involve the NZ First leader distinguishing between the original overpayment, and the additional interest and penalties.

Rightwing blogger David Farrar is taking the overpayments very seriously, saying that if the Newsroom story "is correct, this is very serious. It could be deemed welfare fraud. Now Peters, unlike Turei, promptly paid it back. But if this report is correct, then Peters needs to explain how this happened" - see: MSD must explain.

Alternatively, Farrar says it could be MSD's fault and, if so: "MSD need to explain how they made this mistake. Did their computer system fail? Did their staff enter in the wrong details? Was this an error that could have affected other pensioners? The public need to be reassured that this error which occured with Mr Peters isn't systemic."

Newsrooms Bernard Hickey makes the case that Peters' scandal isn't so different to the one that brought down Metiria Turei and "opened a debate about how the welfare system operates. She eventually resigned after discrepancies in her story were challenged and she was forced to admit false declarations. She was criticised for not telling the full story right at the start. Winston Peters now faces the same criticism" - see: Winston in the headlights.

Dirty politics?

But is Winston Peters the victim of dirty politics? This is a question put very well in Tracy Watkins' must-read column, Winston Peters, scandal and a recipe for revenge. She points out that "details of his tax or MSD records appear to have been leaked, which is extraordinary and almost unprecedented for a political leader."

Watkins says "The story may or may not knock Peters out of the race if it damages him with his core constituency, the grey vote. There has to be a strong suspicion that was the intention behind the leak."


She also questions whether this is a concerted political attack by Peters' political opponents: "were there others in the know? Act leader David Seymour had earlier referred to Peters as a 'charismatic crook' on The Nation's multi-party leaders debate. Former Inland Revenue Minister Peter Dunne had tweeted after Peters' statement came out 'Lets see how the superannuation overpayment story looks 24 hours from now' - which was cryptic, but could be read as meaning he knew more, though Dunne now insists that was not the case. Others including right wing lobby group the Taxpayers Union also appeared to be primed."

Chris Trotter wonders why political journalists aren't asking the hard questions about who might have ordered this "hit job" on Peters: "Always, the critical journalistic question arising out of this sort of political hit is: "Cui bono?" (Who benefits?) Which political party would benefit the most by embarrassing Mr Peters and driving down his party's support?" - see: Winston's Latest "Scandal": Bureaucratic Bungle, or "Political Hit-Job"?.

He also draws parallels to the demise of Metiria Turei: "And yet, we see the same media dogs who tore Metiria Turei to pieces, now bounding after Mr Peters. They are demanding that he release to them all personal financial records pertaining to his pension. His comfortable personal circumstances are being waved before the public, as if he was some sort of latter-day Marie Antoinette. Once again, Mr Peters is being showered with mud by politicians and journalists bound together in what can only be described as an ethically deficient political symbiosis. And, as we all know, mud sticks."

Peters certainly claims he is the victim of a crime, explaining why he didn't initially cooperate with Newshub journalists seeking answers. He reportedly replied to Newshub's Lloyd Burr that he wasn't going to "respond to any of this sort of crap at all" - see Dan Satherley's I didn't claim extra superannuation - Winston Peters.

According to this, "On Monday, he said he didn't comment on Saturday because he was under the impression Newshub obtained the information from the IRD, which would have been a crime." See also Lloyd Burr's Winston Peters' shifting story over pension overpayment.

On TV3's AM Show, Peters explained this all further, taking swipes at Lloyd Burr - see: Peters goes full Winston on the AM Show over superannuation overpayment. This item also reports that "A spokesman from the Privacy Commission said an alleged leak would actually be an offence under the Tax Administration Act which says that IRD officers need to keep information secret." The spokesperson says: "A person convicted of breaching this would be subject to imprisonment for up to six months, or a fine of up to $15,000, or both,"


But not all Peters' opponents are openly out to get him. National Party leader Bill English has been noticeably sympathetic to Peters, also expressing concern about dirty tricks: "Yeah we would be concerned, these are personal details of people's lives, and people expect them to be treated confidentially" - see 1News's 'People can make mistakes': Bill English goes into bat for possible coalition mate Winston Peters.

Finally, is it a case of "live by the sword; die by the sword"? Lloyd Burr points out that Peters "often challenges ministers that if they have nothing to hide, then they have nothing to worry about", and that he should be willing to front up with answers - see: Where is the openness and transparency, Winston Peters?.